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To Cain

I still can’t quite believe that you’re gone. I’d always thought that we would meet up again some time in the future if I were ever in Vancouver, or maybe in China again, or wherever our paths might have crossed in this world in the future, as people do.

You were always kind. Always. I’ve never heard you speak uncharitably of someone. You were probably one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known. You were certainly one of the most earnest and honest – so much so that I didn’t really know what to make of you at first, and for a long time. I remember the night I first met you, you were so different, and everything that came out of your mouth was so serious and almost uncomfortably heartfelt that I didn’t know what to make of it, because most people aren’t like that. I remember you telling me that your parents had named you Cain after Cain in the bible because they thought God had been unfair to Cain, and I remember thinking that anecdote seemed to perfectly sum you up in a way I couldn’t quite explain. I still feel that.

The more I got to know you, the longer we were friends, the more I realized that you really were just one of those people who seemed incapable of being false or insincere. When you were, you seemed ill at ease, uncomfortable. You seemed to deeply mean everything you said, and the things you said were always life-affirming, thoughtful, and heartfelt. You had a way of speaking that made me feel like I was of value, that I mattered in this world, that I was a force of good. I have no doubt you also made your students feel this way, which is perhaps one of the most important things a teacher can do for a student. Almost every conversation I had with you were conducted in terms that were epic and philosophical and metaphysical that it bordered on being humorous; it was almost funny how incredibly sincere you always were, how holistic and interconnected your worldview was.

I wish I had told you more what a talented writer you were. I remember reading the beginning of your novel, and listening to all the writing pieces you’d share during our little writing group meetings. Your writing was so distinctly you, so bursting with life and intensity that it felt like you had poured absolutely everything about yourself in your writing, and I remember how I had envied your ability to be so unafraid and unfiltered on paper.

These past few days, I keep remembering things about you, conversations we had, the way you looked when you were happy or sad about something. I remember the long walk we took along the boardwalk that night in those last few days in China when almost everyone had left for the summer already. I am grateful for that memory and for all the things you shared with me about your life. If there had to be a last memory, I am glad that that was ours.

You were a good man and a good friend, probably a better friend to me than I was to you. I wish I had been a better friend. I wish what happened hadn’t happened. I wish I had made it more clear to you that you were of value, that you mattered in this world and in my life, and that you were a force of good in this world.

I don’t know if there is an afterlife, and I can’t remember if you believed in one, but it seems like something you would’ve believed in. I hope that wherever you are, you are at peace.

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Some thoughts on family

          I am spending the holiday break in Shanghai with my grandmother. She lives on the second floor of an apartment building in the former French Concession on a street called Xin Le Lu, which translated means “new happiness road.” The building is small and aged, like many of the inhabitants inside, and each apartment is shared by two or more families, as many of the older styled apartments in Shanghai are. My grandmother shares with the Wu’s, who have lived there for as long as I can remember and have a boy in the family a few years older than me whom I used to chase around the apartment and bully (so I’m told) back when I was still living there with my parents. They own the two rooms near the front of the apartment, my grandmother owns the two rooms near the back, and the kitchen is shared, as is the hallway in between.

                                                                
          This is the apartment that my grandfather fell in love with and insisted on moving into when he and my grandmother were young and just starting their family, and after my grandfather was gone, this is where my grandmother raised her three young children on her own, my mother the oldest of the three. The walls are cracked and discolored with age now, the rooms cluttered with a lifetime of possessions tucked away in dusty drawers, cabinets, and shelves, but whatever may be lacking in space on the inside, the neighborhood more than makes up for, and I think that Xin Le Lu is still one of the prettiest streets in Shanghai, although I admit I am not an objective judge. The street is quiet and narrow, lined on both sides with the tall stately old French sycamore trees that line so many of the streets in the French Concession. The trees are bare and knobby now, but in summertime the branches are so heavy with leaves that they bend and meet with the other side in the middle of the sky, creating a tunnel of green over the sidewalk speckled with dots of sunlight peeking through from the gaps and holes above, and I remember walking underneath that dense greenery in summers past, listening to the cicadas that would fill the humid air with their sounds and make me think of my grandfather and how he would catch the cicadas with traps, fry them up, and give to my uncle to eat as a treat.
          In America, it is and has always been just my parents and me, and when I’m there I often forget that anything else came before, but when I’m in Shanghai, my concept of time widens, and I am reminded that the three of us are not simply some lone detached unit whose history only began when I came into this world and was taken to America at the age of four by parents who’d decided to forge new lives in a new land where they knew almost no one, owned almost nothing, and worked long days and even longer nights like so many immigrants do. Sitting here in the room where my mother grew up, I’m reminded that we are in fact tied to a longer family history of parents and daughters and grandparents and great grandparents and everyone who came before, all of whom gave birth and lived and died in this place that is now foreign to me, and that in this place, my mother and my father were born and were young and grew up and fell in love and got married and had me.  >> Continue reading..

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On love and loss and what remains

          I feel like I’ve been away for a long time, selfishly wrapped inside a cocoon of my own making, tending to stubborn injuries.
          I was in love, and then I wasn’t anymore, and the small bright world that held my life and which had become pale and silent had broken then, into crumbled misshapen pieces. Looking back on these past six months, I see now that I have essentially been in grief – not because I still wanted to be with him, he who had for so long made me dizzy with happiness, but because I no longer did: I grieved for what might have been, and for what was; for the lost feelings that had once felt like they could never be lost; for the cold, immutable fact that there are things in life that cannot and will not change, no matter how hard you work and no matter how much you want them to be different.
          That last one is particularly difficult to come to terms with because it applies to so many things in life, and because it requires nothing, but takes everything. And as it’s taking, it stands behind a wall of stone, quiet and still, unmoved by anger and untouched by despair. The word, indifference comes to mind, but it doesn’t feel like indifference exactly. It just feels true, and when everything is calm and clear, it almost feels gentle in how simple it is. Soothing, even. It is the cosmic equivalent of someone saying to you when you’re in pain, “That’s how life is sometimes, so learn to live with it,” which is as kind a thing to say as it is cruel.  >> Continue reading..

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